community, sex, friendship – the joy of being queer
There might be a long way to go, but let’s celebrate how far we’ve come.
Photography Holly Falconer
“After trauma, we always have the opportunity to think about what we’ve gained,” says writer KUCHENGA, when I call her up to discuss the nebulous concept of “queer joy” for LGBT History Month. I ask what the upshot of the difficulties that come with being trans are, and the answer comes instantly: the people she’s met, the communities that have supported her. “Trans people are at high risk of homelessness, discrimination and violence, I was experiencing all of this after I left home at 17. But then I met my first trans girlfriend I found feminist love and support.”
Being a trans person of colour has compelled KUCHENGA to find community in a wider range of places that she otherwise might, in activist groups like Black Lives Matter or Sisters Uncut, on Facebook or Tumblr or at secret parties in the suburbs. “I’ve searched for a sense of connection, and because it's not available in the mainstream, I depend on word of mouth. But when I find my people, I value it so much: I talk to other trans girls and we have such rich conversations, we’re aware of how much knowledge we possess, we create networks where we’re able to look after each other in a really familial sense -- “sis” and “mother” -- and because we face so much rejection we look for comfort in our peers and mentors. Ts Madison, Miss Major, Janet Mock… I don’t just watch their videos online, they move with me through the world.”
Community, sex, friendship, pride, joy, defiance -- the positive sides of being LGBT can come in many guises. For KUCHENGA, it’s the support of the people she’s met. For my friend Amrou Al-Kadhi, aka nonbinary Iraqi drag queen Glamrou, queer joy comes from watching Blue Planet II and realising marine life are all gender nonconforming as hell. For the brilliant transgender Labour women’s officer Lily Madigan, pride is being inspired by LGBT politicians and activists to help her achieve her own goal, of making the world a better place.
As this month marks LGBT History Month, it’s important to remember that, while some of us enjoy the privileges of a more accepting world for LGBT people, elsewhere our brothers, sisters and nonbinary friends come tirelessly under attack. We might have hoped that 2017 would be a year in which we saw this sad truth abate, but unfortunately not. In Britain, a media offensive decried that transgender people were indoctrinating children, that being trans was a mental illness, and that allowing trans people into gendered spaces like toilets would put people at risk (not true).
“People are paying attention to gender, to sexuality, to the Ls, Gs, Bs, Ts and so forth as identities within their own right and are starting to understand the language of intersectionality. It’s not all good attention, but it’s bubbling and I hope we are on the fringes of a revolution.”
In America, anti-trans and anti-gay rhetoric from the President coincided with 2017 becoming the worst year in the last 20 for homophobic and transphobic hate crimes; according to the Anti-Violence Project, one LGBT person was murdered a week in the US simply for being who they are. And in countries like Egypt, Chechnya and Azerbaijan, LGBT communities continued to be persecuted at alarming rates.
When the news stories are all negative, it’s easy to lose hope. But LGBT history month is also a time to remember that while this is part of the story, it’s not the whole story. In moments where it feels like all the work of LGBT activists and their allies have been for nothing, there are LGBT heroes who surface to remind us that mustering optimism is vital. As Lily (who will hopefully become one of Britain’s first transgender MPs) put it: “As a teenage trans student I felt very ostracised, both by my family and society as a whole. I reached some very low points. It was only by sheer luck and some Labour-era equality legislation that I was able to bounce back. Nothing’s perfect and it’s our duty to make the best of the situation.”
Queer people I meet all the time find joy in the queer experience and use this as a method of empowerment and survival in difficult times. For Mollie Mills, an LA-based filmmaker, queer joy came recently in the form of her own same-sex wedding, when her and her girlfriend married in the Graceland chapel in Las Vegas. “Lauryn asked me to marry her a month after we met,” she says. “. While Trump is president it feels like there’s protest in getting married, in simply in being domestic, and it felt like an acceptance of ourselves being purely at the submission of love, in whatever form it comes in.”
For the band MUNA, a US three-piece who make empowering queer anthems and have legions of LGBT fans, the most important part of being queer is being awake to the world. “We are grateful for our varying, yet inherently politicised identities because they require us to care and to be engaged,” says bandmate Naomi, over email. “Despite all that is disconcerting about the world in which we live, we feel especially lucky to be a part of the queer community (and myself being a person of colour) in a world that’s slowly but surely losing its willingness to tolerate abhorrent behaviour.” Lead singer Katie agrees: “As artists and queer young people, we genuinely feel blessed to be alive right now because, if we can remember how to listen for it on a daily basis, we find that there is a hum of a new dawn buzzing underneath the heartbreak and discord.”
"In moments where it feels like all the work of LGBT activists and their allies have been for nothing, there are LGBT heroes who surface to remind us that mustering optimism is vital."
True to Muna’s words, Mollie just made an advert that broadcast on national television in America featuring the oldest LGBTQ ice hockey team and a beautiful gay cowboy couple, which aired after a primetime Trump speech. “Small victories!” she jokes. “As a community, I think we hold a compassion for one another that brings unity, conversation and hopefully the motivation to fight for acceptance and understanding.” In other words, there’s a lot to be positive about: “People are paying attention to gender, to sexuality, to the Ls, Gs, Bs, Ts and so forth as identities within their own right and are starting to understand the language of intersectionality. It’s not all good attention,” she concedes, “but it’s bubbling and I hope we are on the fringes of a revolution.”
As for me, I find queer joy in lots of places. The solidarity I experience in the simplest of moments, like walking down the street with my girlfriend and passing another lesbian couple, giving each other that all-knowing look, “the gay nod”. I find it in small triumphs, like getting my mum to call my girlfriend my “girlfriend” rather than insisting on calling her my “friend”. And I find it in the prospect of possibility, in defining the way you live your life on your own terms, something KUCHENGA agrees with: “If you are a straight or cis person you get to see relationships represented, there’s a path to your life that's laid out to you, and that’s just not there when you’re queer.”
Of course, choice is always privilege, and while some of us are lucky enough to be able to decide between getting married or spending all night in a gay club (or even doing both!) others have less choice. I am able to face little discrimination for being LGBT and live my life openly, but while I celebrate this progress, I despair for the afflictions faced by the rest of my community. It’s in these moments of despair that we should remember the power of queer joy as a form of resistance, and the words of KUCHENGA’S hero, Janet Mock, who once said: “Sometimes people try to destroy you precisely because they recognise your power -- not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”